What exactly is wrong with the commercialisation of Christmas?

A Christmas tree next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Photo: CNS)

Yesterday, I had a go at an Argentinian archbishop for telling a congregation that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but a “commercialised symbol” of Christmas. I concentrated my remarks on the first part of that statement; the reality of Santa Claus and what he represents. My point was that Santa Claus, even the paganised Santa of popular culture, has a Christian origin, still there not far under the surface; and that what we need to do is to reinvest Santa with Christian meaning, not abolish him.
Now I want to have a go (sticking my neck out, I am well aware) at the second part of that indictment: that he represents the commercialisation of Christmas. My question is, what’s wrong with commercialisation? I don’t mean, of course, a commercialisation of Christmas which has simply engulfed the celebration of the feast as the birthday of the saviour of the world. Actually, though, we need to understand that what’s really happened, even in that case, is that Christmas has been not so much commercialised as secularised, even paganised.
We can certainly deplore that. Secularisation, bad. But what’s wrong with commerce? I absolutely defend the giving of presents at Christmas, especially to children: it’s part of the wonder of Christmas for them, and if that wonder is folded into the real celebration of the great feast of the incarnation, it can only enhance their response to what Christmas is actually about. When my children were small, we split the giving of presents into two halves: some small presents before Mass to deal with the impatience of Christmas morning; then the big presents after Mass when we got home and lit the fire. 
The giving of presents is a good thing, not a bad thing. But presents have to come from somewhere. And we need people to buy them, the economy needs plenty of people to buy lots of them. The more commerce there is this Christmas, the faster the economy will recover, the more jobs will be created, and the sooner many people will find employment and regain their self-respect.
Commerce can be good, not bad. Let me give you another example of the benign interconnectedness of commerce and the Christian religion.  This is a story from the Catholic News Service.  The headline is: “Boost in tourism to Bethlehem in 2010 pleases Palestinian businesses.”

“With five new hotels in the works,” the story begins,
“…a handful of new souvenir shops opening recently and nearly 40 restaurants able to serve crowds from 100 to 1,000, the Bethlehem economy is showing signs of recovery following the desperate intifada years.
“For the first time in years, shop owners and tourist industry workers in the birthplace of Christ are optimistic and have confidence in the economy. For most, 2010 was the best year for business in a decade.
“Outside the Church of the Nativity in mid-December, Nigerian pilgrims snapped pictures of each other as Russian pilgrims made their way into the ancient church through a small entranceway. Inside, groups waited patiently at the stairway leading into the grotto where tradition holds that Jesus was born.
“Coming to Bethlehem is always an exceptionally emotional experience,” said Fr Filiberto Barrera, who led a group of Californian and Mexican pilgrims as they left the grotto to make room for another group…
“But the lines [queues] in the week before Christmas were modest compared to those of late November, the high season for tourists. Pilgrims waited up to two hours in a line that wound outside the historic church,” said street vendor Khaled Omar, 47, who has been working in the tourist business for 33 years.
“Thank God, it has been a good year,” Omar said with a broad smile as he arranged embroidered tote bags and colourful beaded necklaces along a wall next to the church.”

And so on. The point is this: because Bethlehem is now recovering as a place of pilgrimage, a place where pilgrims can come once more in their thousands to ponder on the wonder of the birth of God as a tiny child in the place where this amazing thing happened, the city is also recovering as a place where people can live sane and decent lives.
It is recovering because local traders have been able once more to service these pilgrims, with restaurants and hotels and olive-wood crucifixes and rosaries and tote bags (whatever they are): in other words they are able once again to commercialise Christmas, big time. And this is an unambiguously good thing. The unemployment rate in Bethlehem has steadily declined since the end of the second intifada in 2005, when 45 per cent of its citizens were out of work. The unemployment rate is now half that, and is still coming down. All due to the recovery of commerce, of the commercialisation of a holy place.
So. The secularisation of Christmas is bad. But please, let’s hear fewer lazy and sanctimonious homilies this year about its commercialisation. As far as I’m concerned, let it rip.